Japanese Prints at the Hood Museum of Art - Along the Tokaido highway

The Historical Incident

Chûshingura (A Treasury of Loyal Retainers), perhaps the most popular of all kabuki plays, was based on actual events. In 1701 the shogun chose Lord Asano of the Ako domain to chaperone two representatives of the imperial household during their annual visit to Edo. He was told to seek instruction in the complex protocols associated with such a visit from Moronao, one of the shogun’s ministers. Moronao humiliated Asano in front of his peers after he refused to pay the bribe Moronao expected. Asano drew his sword and wounded Moronao, an act punishable by death, since it occurred within the shogun’s residence. Asano was ordered to commit seppuku (ritual disembowelment). His domain was confiscated and his retainers were released from service, becoming rônin (masterless samurai). Forty-seven of Asano’s retainers plotted for months to avenge their lord’s death. In 1703 they invaded Moronao’s mansion. Moronao was captured, executed, and his head was placed on Asano’s grave. All forty-seven rônin committed seppuku when the shogun condemned them to death for their act.

The Play

The courageous vendetta of the forty-seven rônin quickly captivated public sentiment. One of Edo’s kabuki theaters staged a version of the story a mere two weeks after the rônin committed suicide but the play was quickly banned as it violated laws prohibiting references to contemporary political events. By 1706 the Osaka playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon was incorporating parts of the vendetta tale into his puppet (bunraku) plays, avoiding censorship by recasting the tale into an earlier era and changing the names of the main characters. Other authors, working over the next four decades, continued to modify the play with new subplots and additional characters until 1748 when Takeda Izumo, Miyoshi Shôraku, and Namiki Senryû penned the version we know today as Chûshingura.

Chûshingura Prints

The success of Chûshingura on the stage prompted print artists to explore its possibilities. Chûshingura series, usually numbering eleven prints (one for each act), proved especially popular. Katsukawa Shunsen’s series, shown here, is a particularly unique example in that his use of Western-style linear perspective facilitated a more thorough retelling of the play. The extended ground plane allowed Shunsen to depict two and sometimes three scenes from each act. Many of the play’s numerous subplots come to life in the middle and background sections of each design. In some prints Shunsen utilized these spaces to restage an act sequentially scene by scene, as it would have performed in the theater.

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